Backpacking Gear Review: The Big Three

This post is a long time coming! Since it's Black Friday and maybe you are looking for something to buy, this is perfect timing! Since the "big three" are really the most important for both comfort and weight in the life of a backpacker, I will start with those. For those of you that do not know, the big three consists of your shelter, sleep system and backpack. These are generally the three heaviest things you will carry, apart from food and water. There are a couple of different camps (ha!) when it comes to pack weight, but most say that the big three should weigh no more than twelve pounds, and many even think it should be no more than nine pounds. Of course if you are an ultralight backpacker, I think your entire base weight (everything except food, water and fuel) is supposed to be less than ten pounds. However, I digress; my big three items weigh about seven pounds with the heaviest being my shelter, then the sleep system, then my pack.

Before I start, I want to give a shout out to a tent that I have used for quite a while, but is no longer available online. It is the Big Agnes Fishhook UL1 Tent; a picture of it can be found here. It is a one man, three season, no zipper tent which weighs 47 oz. without a footprint. This was my first really light tent; before that, I believe my prior tent weighed about 6 pounds. Nope, I am not kidding. I was so excited to finally have a tent that was lightweight, easy to pack and carry and was actually quite spacious for one person. The only con is that the little hook closure is a little hard to open and close when you are trying to get out for a potty break in the middle of the night. Otherwise, it was great. I even took it to Peru where it got down in the 20s at night and I was pretty comfortable. Additionally, I would bring all of my gear inside with me and there was plenty of space. 

Lastly, but definitely not least, when the pole broke after I had owned it for about five years, I sent it back to Big Agnes and they fixed it for only the cost of shipping. However, this was right before the pandemic and when I had not received it back a few months later, I wrote to them and they said it had been shipped to me, but since I had not received it, they would send me a new pole set anyway, free of charge. The tent is great; the customer service is even better. 

Shelter: I guess that brings me to my next tent, as I bought this due to my happiness with my first one. The Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 weighs 46 oz. with the footprint. This is a semi freestanding tent, which means that there are two corners which have to be staked down and two corners which are connected to poles. It is a two man tent with two doors and two vestibules and it is spacious for one but you do have to be pretty friendly with your tentmate when you are sharing. Personally, I have had no issues with this, but I do think that if both people are sleeping on any wider than a 20 inch pad, it may be a tight fit. This tent has been with me in as low as 17 degrees Fahrenheit, has gone through snow and rain storms and has protected me from many a mosquito. It is easy to set up with only one pole and is skinny when packed up so it fits nicely in the outer pocket of my pack. 

Mine is made from nylon but there are now other versions that are made of other materials, like stronger nylon and also dyneema (DCF) if you really want to break the bank. There is also a three man version of this same tent. 

The Big Three

SleepWestern Mountaineering Ultralite 20 degree sleeping bag (29 oz.) and the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite regular size (12 oz.). If you know me at all, you will know that I can get stuck in the trap of analysis-paralysis. This was true in the case of buying a good sleeping bag. I own a really nice Caribou bag that I have had since I was in high school; it is synthetic and it is very warm and I used it for a long time on my backpacking trips. However, it is not small. There is a reason our packs used to be 40 pounds! Then I got an REI bag that is equally as warm, but even bulkier. So I tried to find a bag that was (a) warm, (b) light and (c) inexpensive. Like looking for a needle in a haystack, it was nigh impossible. Then I finally decided that I would have to pony up some cash, but then I couldn't decide between a quilt and a bag, down or synthetic, long or short, mummy or not!!! I finally settled on the Western Mountaineering bag. 

To make a long story short, it is an 850 fill down bag with a 20 degree rating. Just like most, it does not actually keep me warm down to the rated temperature; I have found that if it is under 30 degrees, I am happier if I add a silk liner to the mix. Otherwise, it is good; it has a little hood if you need it, although I normally just use that as a pillow cover. I wish it had a cell phone pocket, as I have had a few cold nights where I would have preferred to have my phone secured, rather than floating around in my bag, which is where I keep it. 

The Therm-a-Rest is a regular size, 47 inches long with an R value of 4.2, which means that it does keep me warmer on those cold nights. It is comfortable, but it took a little while to get used to the 2.5 inch height which sometimes feels like you are going to slide right off of it in the middle of the night. I find these pretty easy to pop though, and have popped two short versions. I repaired one of them with the kit that comes with it, but will carry tenacious tape from now on, as I constantly was having to blow it up in the middle of the night. The regular size one that I have now also slowly leaks but I am not sure where or why. However, it only requires one or two slight blow ups, so I have not really been overly worried about it. 

Backpack:  Hyperlite 2400 Southwest Backpack (28.6 oz.). I would say this is the best purchase that I have made. The other items are good, but I could  probably find better ones (like a warmer sleeping bag for instance). The backpack is made out of cuben fiber, or DCF, which is a waterproof, lightweight and very strong composite material. Think about the Tyvek they use to make buildings, but lighter. It has two hip pockets and you can order additional chest strap pockets if desired. It is built for your body, as in you measure your torso and waist and they customize it for you. It is frameless, has a roll top, three exterior pockets and it carries 40 liters. As I said, I love this pack; I was a little worried the frameless nature would be uncomfortable, but it isn't. It fits me like a glove. The only thing I would do differently if I ordered it again is that I would get the larger size, as you can always fill it less and roll the top more. However, I can fit a bear can, all my food and clothes and sleep system on the inside and my tent in the outer pocket and I sometimes still have room to spare. 

So there you have it! Next time, I will talk a little about the kitchen! 

What is your favorite "big three" item? Even if you are not a backpacker, tell me: what travel item is your heaviest? 

1 comment:

  1. This was interesting to read. I had no idea things could be built so light! But it makes sense - the weight can really add up! I will have to share this post with my good friend Amber who is very into backpacking. You guys would get along great! She went to Wind River last summer and loved it - I think I sent her your posts on your trip there!


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